Driving out of Death Valley last week, on a lonely road miles from the nearest car or human-built structure, I came upon a striking grave marker. I was compelled to pull over and check it out, and what I found was like history smacking me in the face. Isolated but well-tended, the grave was on a ridge overlooking the Eastern Sierras in the faraway distance. A weathered, hand-carved board read:
It had to be a pioneer family, I thought. How tragic to make it so far west just to die there on the trail. More fascinating still, scattered around the grave, atop a muddy blanket, were trinkets left for the children: a decomposing ragdoll, some coins, a few bleached crayons and even a half-eaten package of M&Ms (how thoughtful).
But who were these unfortunate kids? Miles from wi-fi, I had to wait until I got home to find out. A little Googling found the website of David KcKillips, a cousin four times removed from the infant pioneers, who tells the story (after the jump):
"In the 1870s, the McKellips ran a way station near the current gravesite. Managing a way station was usually a family affair. The wife of the manager would prepare food and lodgings, while the manager would tend to the animals and any repairs to the stages and wagons. The children would help whichever of their parents they could. In January of 1874 a dreadful sickness came into the valley [Diphtheria, we think] and entire families took ill at the same time. There was none left well to care for the sick. Larkin & Lorenza McKellips died and of necessity had been buried very close to the house. After the family had gotten well, they must have carefully tended the little grave sites. The father had the dreadful chore of carving their names and dates into a grave marker. When the time came for the family to leave the area, the way station was no longer needed, the mother's heart must have been heavy with anguish.
For over half a century the graves laid forgotten. In 1947, Bill James, who leased the "White Swan" talc mine was wandering over the desert and found two grave markers. It was impossible to discern what was originally carved into the worn and weathered wooden boards. The mystery intrigued Mr. James and by inquiring with all of the old-timers in the area he was gradually able to piece together the story of the children and their untimely deaths. Mr. James carved new markers and the James family and the Wallace Campbell family of Darwin maintained the graves until the road department crew took over."
These days, the California Dept. of Transportation is responsible for maintaining the grave. When the road was set to be straightened in the 1980s, they re-engineered it to go around the site. It stands as a fascinating piece of history, sans interpretive signs, ropes or tour guides; the best kind.